Public Schools Act, 1866

Prior to 1866

Because of the political instability of the period prior to 1866, and the contentious nature of education (compounded by the question of religion and State aid) it was difficult to pass any legislation in the education field. Many attempts had been made and numerous bills had been introduced into parliament to alter the education system in the colony. None of these had been successful, but they indicated a growing dissatisfaction with the operation of the two Boards, especially the development of competition between the government and the denominational schools. The earlier purpose of restricting educational competition by the introduction of a common school system had in fact added one more competitor to the field, and it was not unusual for denominational schools to be established in towns as a reaction to the opening or proposed opening of a government school.

Council of Education

In 1866 the newly formed Martin-Parkes coalition government was strong enough to overcome opposition to educational changes and the Public Schools Act, 1866 was steered through parliament by Henry Parkes. The 1866 Act had two main purposes. It was an attempt to rationalise government spending on education (and in the process government schools received priority over denominational schools) and to provide educational facilities to the seemingly endless number of communities which were springing up all over the colony following the Land Acts of the early 1860s. The new Act replaced the Board of National Education and the Denominational School Board by a single Council of Education, consisting of five appointed members, which assumed the responsibility of both Boards, namely, the control of the government school system and the allocation of subsidies to denominational schools. The Council of Education exercised more control over denominational schools than previously because unless these schools met certain rigid conditions relating to size, course of study, and distance from an existing government school, they received no subsidy.

Provisional Schools and Half-Time Schools

With the aim of distributing schools as widely as possible, the 1866 Act lowered the number of pupils required for a Public School (all National Schools were renamed Public Schools on 1 January 1867) from 30 to 25, and created two new kinds of schools. The first of these was the Provisional School, which could be established by the Council of Education in places where attendance was likely to be between 15 and 25. The second type of school was under the charge of an itinerant teacher. Early experiments with this form of school produced teachers with as many as seven teaching stations in their circuit and in 1869 the Council of Education restricted the number of schools per teacher to two with the result that they became known as Half-Time Schools, each school requiring at least 10 children before it could be established. Parents were expected to provide the site and necessary school buildings and furniture for Provisional Schools and Half-Time Schools; the government was not prepared to invest capital in them because of their small size and possible impermanence. If, however, a Provisional or a Half-Time School grew sufficiently in enrolments it could be converted to a Public School, at which time the Council of Education would become responsible for most of the capital costs of new buildings or additions. Not until 1875 did the government withdraw the requirement for local communities to provide at least one-third of the capital of a Public School.

The typical government school

The Public Schools Act received wide support: the 259 schools inherited by the Council of Education in 1867 had doubled within three years, and by early 1880 the number had grown to over 1,100. The majority of these schools were Public Schools (684) but Provisional Schools (317) and Half-Time Schools (107) were making a significant impact in the remoter country districts. The typical government school was still the one-teacher school in the bush; if anything, the system had become more 'countrified' under the Council of Education than it had been under the Board of National Education. The proportion of schools in the Sydney district had dropped to five per cent in 1879 and accounted for a little over 15 per cent of total enrolments compared to nearly 30 per cent in 1866. This change was directly attributable to the proliferation of Provisional and Half-Time Schools, and the relatively small increase in the number of schools in Sydney where denominational schools were still strongly supported. In some of the larger country towns denominational schools also continued to dominate the educational scene, but in most areas the government school system had either absorbed denominational schools or eliminated them in open competition.

Changing the Act

Despite the success of the 1866 Act in making better provision for public education there was considerable pressure during the 1870s to change the Act. A catch-cry of the reformers was that education should be 'free, secular and compulsory'; moreover, the very success of the Act with its large increase in the number of schools and consequent increase in expenditure on education (from £100,000 in 1867 to £360,000 in 1879) led many to press for the State education system to be placed under a government department rather than to continue in the hands of a part-time council. There was also a growing feeling that in the provision of education, the State's role should be paramount, and that the role of the churches, especially the Catholic Church, should not be encouraged by the continuance of State aid.